In back yards across America, you can hear beer worshippers' emphatic arguments that their beloved malted brew is the quintessential grilling beverage. But wine clearly kicks beer's butt when it comes to complimenting food, so what's up with that? People mechanically reach for beer when lighting up the charcoal, especially when they're glazing the meat with spicy, tomato-based sauces, but it's high time to throw wine a bone. OK, it's an uphill battle, but wine does complement food better because of its tannins and acidity. Beer, especially heavier ales and stouts, masks taste by coating the tongue with carbonation and astringent, wheat-y nuances that don't meld with the flavors of food.
Just look toward Europe to know wine flatters food. Even brew-loving Germans sip wine with their meals, forgoing the weightier, belly-filling beverage for brau haus visits. Italians consume wine with every meal, as do the French and Swiss. And although Americans are set in their beer-swilling ways, we might learn some things from cultures that have been drinking us under the table for hundreds of years.
When grilling chicken, you'll want to start with something not too heavy, like a slightly chilled Australian Shiraz that won't overwhelm the delicateness of the meat. Slather a fruit-based glaze on your bird, since fruit will bring out your wine's own fruity identity. A spicy meal begs for a peppery wine like Syrah or Zinfandel to stand up to the heat.
Cheeseburgers, steaks and other protein-rich dishes help smooth out the rough edges of tannic wines like Cabernet or Syrah. And the oiliness of grilled salmon or shrimp can be counterbalanced with a cool, crisp white wine. For a freaky pairing favored by wine geeks, chow down on smoky-sweet ribs along with a highly acidic Pinot Grigio.
Think outside the keg. Just because Budweiser and the like have brainwashed all of us -- including me -- into thinking beer is the only acceptable accompaniment to grilled meat doesn't mean we have to agree. Explore a little and you just might find a new libation to love with your backyard feast. Here are a few summery suggestions to send you on your way.
2001 Paringa Shiraz ($11) : A light-hearted, friendly and smooth Aussie Shiraz. Like biting into a fresh black cherry sprinkled with pepper.
B.R. Cohn 1998 Olive Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) : A Merlot in a Cab's sexy body. Sultry, smooth tannins with vivid cranberry and dark berry fruit on the nose and tongue. Worth the bucks.
2000 Justin Syrah ($26) : Soft and velvety on the tongue, it delivers a sultry, smoky finish. This is a soothing choice after a long workweek.
2001 Pedroncelli Zinfandel Rose ($10) : Hot diggity ... this is my new favorite rose. A far cry from its sweet white Zin cousin, this dry, pink wine sports strawberry like you can't believe. Grilled chicken would be ideal with this inexpensive wine.
Drylands 2002 Sauvignon Blanc ($20) : New Zealand never ceases to amaze me with their Sauvignon Blancs. This tasty beauty is dry, crisp with citrus and garnished with apricot.
Clos du Bois 2000 Calcaire Chardonnay ($22) : Slightly buttery, citrusy and spritzy, this may sound like a martini but it's actually wonderful. Smooth and easy drinkin'.
Rex Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon ($8) : The murky purple color hides an in-your-face, fruit-driven, lighter style Cab with mild tannins. Cherry permeates the juice while raspberry dances in the nose. This high alcohol wine will stand up to any pungent blue cheeseburger.